Here's what happened when I went to see the new exhibition at the Salvador Dali Museum a few days ago. As I stood in the gallery for at least 30 minutes studying the art, several dozen people peeked or walked in and quickly exited. I had the place to myself the entire time I was there. • Why? • The obvious reason is that the art is not Dali's; it's by another Catalonian, the contemporary artist Mabel Palacin and, as anyone at the Dali will tell you, half of the 200,000 or so annual visitors come to Florida's west-central coast just to see the famous surrealist's work. • I think there's also another reason.
Palacin's Una Noche Sin Fin (An Endless Night) is video art. And video art can intimidate. We perceive it as requiring a longer commitment of time (sometimes but not always true). And it can seem inexplicable because video rarely has the coherent narrative we expect from moving media such as TV shows and movies.
I'll be honest: It has taken me a long time and a lot of mental shifting to wrap my head around video art, having been schooled for decades in the traditional static forms, so I understand museumgoers' reluctance to embrace video when so much nonvideo art is available, especially in a museum like the Dali, which is loaded with so many great works.
But maybe thinking about video art this way can be an entry point for you: You go to a museum to see a lot of images, right? In a video, you are seeing a lot of images, thousands of them. Because they're connected into one continuous thread, you stand still while the images move on the screen rather than moving yourself from one image to the next.
So think about settling in and give Palacin's images a try. And, since time will probably be on your mind because of your assumptions about video art, know that it's on her mind, too.
Palacin was commissioned by the museum to create a video installation as part of its "Traces (of the Avant-garde)," an ongoing program that introduces new contemporary art commensurate with Dali's surrealist sensibilities. The video is art, not travelogue, documentary or overt homage, so Dali's art doesn't resonate obviously in Palacin's work. She takes some of his preoccupations and interprets them in her own way.
Dali's fascination with time is probably the biggest idea she appropriates. He was especially intrigued by the way cinematography could alter our perception of its effect on the natural world as time passes. You see that exploration a lot in Dali's paintings of soft body parts and decomposing food, examples for him of mortality, as well as objects stopped, suspended midtrajectory.
Palacin translates that fascination to video, literally speeding up or slowing down the action in Una Noche.
The video is shown on two screens on opposite sides of the gallery. The images last about 20 minutes but because of the double screens, you'll get more out of it if you stay through another loop. (It's continuous so you don't have to wait.)
There are four scenarios, all very cinematic with high production values and you might, as I did, strain at first to find a coherence among them. Don't. The connective tissue is time, meted out as specific blocks in routine daily life: a work shift, a night's sleep, a meal, and, anomalously, a theatrical performance. All are filmed in real time with Palacin accelerating or retarding it to emphasize details. Her decisions are what you want to contemplate.
When a table of food is upended during the performance, it probably isn't an act of violence but rather an examination of gravity. The slow slosh of wine from a glass is reminiscent of Dali's paintings in which liquid's fluid properties become beautiful, amoebic forms. In the video, we watch as the wine's shape changes with agonizing slowness in its path onto a tablecloth and then changes again as it seeps into the cloth.
People working on an assembly line are choreographed as one interconnecting machine mirroring those on which they work. During the performance segments, the camera pans across the audience's faces, which seem still. When the speed changes, minute twitches are exaggerated: drama off-stage as well as on.
Look for moments. That's what video art usually asks of us. And, of course, look for associations. That's what all good art asks.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.